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Address to Labour Party Regional Con. Invercargill

Hon Pete Hodgson
Friday, 26 March 2004 Speech Notes

Address to Labour Party Regional Conference, Invercargill

Good morning delegates.

I want to reflect on the last four and a half years of government, comment on the events of the past few weeks and look ahead to the next four and a half years.

Our record over the four and a half years has been solid by anyone's standards.

Last year New Zealand's economic growth rate topped the OECD. The economy has expanded in every quarter for three years.

Every region of New Zealand is experiencing growth. Southland recorded the strongest growth in the country in the September quarter of last year.

Through the Regional Partnerships Programme the government is helping regions build their economic capability. Twenty-three of them have developed detailed economic development strategies in the last two years.

The government is funding nine major regional initiatives, including the rollout of broadband services to 95 percent of Southland's business sector.

Nationwide there are 176,000 more people in jobs since this Government took office.

Unemployment is down from 7.4 per cent in 1998, under the last lot, to 4.6 per cent in 2003. That's one of the lowest levels in 16 years. There are more people in work than at any other time in our history.

Maori unemployment has dropped from an average of almost 18 percent in 1999 to just over 10 percent. We need to get it lower still, but there are more than 40,000 more Maori in work than in 1999.

We are tackling the skill shortages and mismatches that are the legacy of neglect throughout the 90s. We're working with industries including forestry, construction, transport and health care on skill development.

We have revitalised industry training, with a massive 56 per cent increase in the number of workers involved. We're confident we'll have 150,000 New Zealanders learning on the job by the end of next year.

There are now more than 6000 people in Modern Apprenticeships.

We are making tertiary education more affordable.

Student loan repayments are being made easier as the income threshold for repayments rises. We expect a $2.6 billion decrease in student debt, largely due to our decision not to charge interest during study and to freeze fees for three years.

We have halted the escalation of tertiary fees that was running at 15 per cent a year on average in the 90s. Fee maxima policy will keep the costs of tertiary education affordable and certain.

We are steadily increasing the numbers of children in early childhood education, and there will be more initiatives in this year’s Budget.

In the compulsory sector, we’ve increased spending per student significantly and targeted more resources into lower decile schools.

We’ve created more new teaching positions. This year alone, there are an extra 774 more new positions than roll growth demanded.

Just this week we launched a major extension of literacy programmes that will benefit thousands of students in primary and secondary schools around the country.

We're delivering on our promise to give all New Zealanders access to affordable primary health care.

Already more than sixty per cent of New Zealanders are enrolled with Public Health Organisations and more than a million have access to low cost primary care through their PHO.

Last October, all six to seventeen year olds enrolled in PHOs were added to the low cost scheme. From 1 July this year, all those aged 65 and over enrolled in PHOs will also have access to low cost care — and will pay only $3 in prescription charges.

Health funding overall is up from about 17 per cent of government spending in 1999 to almost 20 per cent. Our total investment health care for New Zealanders this year will be almost $10 billion, up 43 percent since 1999-2000.

We set goals of having all those referred for a specialist assessment in the public health system seen within six months, and then all those referred on for treatment seen within six months.

By late last year 83 per cent of patients newly referred for specialist assessment were being seen within the six month time frame. Of those meeting the criteria for treatment, ninety per cent were being treated within the six month target time.

We've put aside more than $600 million for major capital projects in health, including a comprehensive $70 million hospital development programme in Invercargill. This includes a new clinical services building, an emergency department, and outpatient and support services.

We're committed to improving access to healthcare for rural communities, with a three-year, $32 million programme to support workforce retention and recruitment of the rural primary health care workforce.

We're taking action on poverty, the root cause of so many health and social problems.

We've added almost 3500 homes to the state housing stock and improved the energy efficiency of many of them, making them warmer and healthier.

Nearly 55,000 low income state tenants are benefiting from income related rents — saving on average $35 a week.

We have increased the minimum wage five times in five years from $7 per hour in 1998 to $9 an hour – about $80 a week more.

We have reversed National’s cuts to Superannuation which would have seen at least a third of older New Zealanders living below the poverty line.

We have helped working parents do their best for their kids by introducing paid parental leave. And we're going to extend it from 12 to 14 weeks.

Like I said, solid progress. Progress that delegates can be proud of. Progress that none of you, however, would regard as sufficient. There is still so much in front of us.

Let me turn now to what is immediately in front of us, which is a sudden shift in the political tides, a surge of discontent focused on race relations.

It is generally, in the shorthand of journalism, described as a reaction to a single speech by the Leader of the Opposition. I think that is far too simple.

The origins of this political mood swing lie, I think, in the very record of solid progress that I have been describing.

This Government has been successful because it has a solid policy platform and has been quietly putting it into place.

The tertiary education reforms, for example, have been quietly underway these past four years and will see our universities improve research and teaching quality, increase post-graduate degrees and increase external revenue. The policy is designed to achieve precisely those outcomes and within another four years there will be serious runs on the board.

I’ve reached for that as an example of careful policy development and implementation because it is topical this week and because I am the member for Dunedin North, which has more students and more researchers in it than any other electorate.

When a Government makes solid progress it tends to eclipse other parties. That has been most evident with the National Party.

National recorded an historically low vote 18 months ago and then proceeded to sink ever lower in the polls.

Panic set in. They swapped leaders before the last election, got trounced, swapped leaders again, got no response to that either, and then reached, desperately, for the race card.

So the origins of Brash's Orewa speech lay in National's irrelevance and desperation. But, despicably, it was also driven by polls, not principles. Polls showing that urban myths about Maori were alive and well in New Zealand.

It was this that Brash seized on. He set out, deliberately, to reinforce myths with lies.

Lies about tangi leave, about research dollars, about health funding. Lies about Maori graduates having a lower standard to meet.

This last example was interesting because it attacked not only the qualification of every Maori graduate, but the institutions themselves. Those institutions responded angrily up and down the country. Their integrity had been impugned.

But that does not concern Don Brash. The politics of division is all about identifying a misconception, anxiety or fear and then pressing the buttons that activate it. The truth is wilfully overlooked in the interests of the cause of the day – in this case, to get National off the ropes of electoral irrelevance.

Labour, for the first time since the election, now polls a few points below the last election result. All the minor parties, but especially Act, have been comprehensively sideswiped and National has been the benefactor.

Radical realignments can happen in modern democracies.

The Tampa incident caused a rapid realignment of politics in our nearest neighbour. The Australian Labor Party was an odds-on electoral favourite before that event, but came a clear second after it.

Earlier this month we saw an even more dramatic shift in Spain, following the awfulness of the bombings in Madrid.

And last weekend brought a dramatic election result in Taiwan, amid extraordinary claims and counterclaims about whether or not a pre-election assassination attempt was genuine.

Democracies are jolted, it seems, more readily than they used to be. External events, around election time, matter more than they used to.

But Dr Brash’s plunge into the politics of race was not an external event, it was a contrived one. And he didn’t wait until the election because he couldn’t afford to. National might have changed its leader, again, had he tarried much longer.

We do not yet know whether there has been a substantial or a temporary realignment in New Zealand politics. It might be that we are seeing the beginning of a return to a familiar, evenly balanced contest between National and Labour – a dynamic closer to that of pre-MMP politics, with the smaller parties less in evidence.

In time, hindsight might tell us that the remarkable feature of our political scene over recent years was not National's sudden recovery in the polls, but the extraordinarily secure position that this Government has been in for more than four years.

There has, for much of that time, been no effective political contest. Now we have one. Is that strange, or are we just back to normal?

The current conventional wisdom says that Dr Brash has struck a nerve with his allegations of privilege and payola for Maori.

Certainly New Zealanders have given fresh voice to a wide range of views on race relations – in polls, articles, letters to the editor, conversations on the street. People have concerns. They want a political response.

That democratic voice has many tones.

At one end a few hold views that are incipiently racist. They have become emboldened to become more florid in their expressions. Some ugly things have been said.

The other end of the scale interests me more.

There is plenty of disquiet amongst people who have fairness as part of their set of values. People who have, as most New Zealanders do, an egalitarian streak.

Their questions or anxieties might be distilled into two questions.

First: When will “it” all end?

This is the lingering concern that says the treaty settlements have to be settled, forever, sometime, so we can all move forward as a nation. These people believe in settlement. They support the process that successive Governments have undertaken these past twenty years. But they want to know when it will end – and, more than that, they want to know that it will end.

The second question that these many Kiwis ask is something like: When “it” has ended, what will our nation’s future look like?

Can we aspire to mutual recognition of one another’s cultures or are we destined to fight? If Maori live shorter lives, have fewer qualifications and are more prone to mental illness or drug abuse then can’t we agree on how to reduce that? And soon, say over a generation? Can we genuinely achieve something like racial harmony, and be the first nation to genuinely do so?

The first question is anxious but the second is aspirational. The first says “We are weary of the past – let’s deal with it”. The second says “We want respect and equal opportunity for the future, so how are we going to secure that?”

Helen Clark has responded to those questions, and their countless variants, by talking publicly about an inquiry. She senses that we are all ready for it and she has been talking about its possible form, function, time frame and process.

If that inquiry is to progress, and succeed, it will need to be designed to involve ordinary New Zealanders and it will need to have a series of stages to it. It can’t be done hurriedly and it can’t be limited to an empty contest between the Roundtable and the Brown table, their respective QC’s and other members of the policy elite. That won’t work.

Instead the consultation and conversations will need to be a good deal more innovative, interactive and inclusive. Fortunately a modern Government can achieve such an outcome — and there is useful international experience to guide us.

However an inquiry into the future of race relations in New Zealand cannot become a wider debate on the constitution or whether or not we should become a republic. We need have an agreed pathway on the future of race relations before we can consider the future of our constitution.

Over recent weeks Helen’s suggestion has received conditional support from many other parties in Parliament. It is becoming a cross-party prospect.

That shouldn’t surprise anyone. Treaty issues nearly always receive cross-party support.

Take settlements as an example. Ngai Tahu, Tainui, Fisheries, many smaller settlements – all of these were agreed implicitly or explicitly by most or all politicians. A loose consensus on such matters is the norm in New Zealand politics.

The exception now is National. Dr Brash does not wish to be part of this inquiry, conditionally or otherwise.

This is very telling.

Having touched a nerve and provoked a reflex, the Doctor now wants to hurry along. He has shown that he knows where the nerve is, and he thinks that should be enough to establish his reputation.

But this is not the action of a leader. It is the behaviour of a dilettante. An attention-seeker.

It is all too easy to make wild promises in Opposition. To traffic in anecdote, myth, and exaggeration.

It is much harder to knuckle down to the real work of sorting fact from fiction, identifying genuine problems and finding lasting solutions.

Dr Brash has no interest in this kind of hard work. He is playing a short game, not a long one. He doesn’t yet know how a long game is played.

Helen Clark does. She has been in the House for 22 years, as has her deputy Michael Cullen. Dr Brash is in his 20th month. He’s on a rollercoaster – the Government is on a journey. He needs to build his party – we want to build a nation.

Labour’s principles of fairness, security and opportunity for all will not be sacrificed on the altar of convenience. Such an option simply does not exist.

Race relations and the Treaty are big, important issues. So is the foreshore and seabed. So was Iraq. Dealing with big issues, sensibly, is what good Governments and good Parliaments do. New Zealanders are entitled to expect that of us. They are used to getting it from us.

Which brings me to what I referred to at the beginning as the next four and a half years.

As Helen often says, it is a privilege to be in Government and we have to earn it every single day.

If the polls are against us and we have to work a bit harder for that privilege, I want to suggest to you that that is no bad thing.

I want to suggest, in fact, that there is one very good reason why we should be grateful that Don Brash was forced to reveal his hand so early in the electoral cycle.

He makes it clearer than ever why it is so important for Labour to win the next election.

Political commentators have noted that Brash's personal approval ratings do not match his party's rebound in the polls.

I believe that is because he does not symbolise what New Zealanders want for the future of this country.

Tax cuts for the rich. Privatisation. User-pays health and education. A punitive attitude to anyone who falls ill or struggles to find a job.

Dr Brash is fond of talking about equality before the law and delivery of public services on the basis of need.

But some kinds of equality and need have never interested the National Party.

They have never been too particular about ensuring equal access to quality healthcare, for example.

If the wealthy can get better care in a partially privatised system, while everybody else queues up at the doors of an under-funded public system, that's fine with National.

If injured workers are left begging by a privatised accident insurance system, so employers and their insurers can keep costs down, well that's OK with National too.

And if the age of eligibility for New Zealand Superannuation has to increase in about fifteen years because of tax cuts, Dr Brash will make no apologies for that.

He believes in slashing benefits, cutting the holidays of the workers who have the least power to protect themselves, and reducing their bargaining rights.

He'd get rid of the minimum wage.

He has recently admitted that had he been Prime Minister he would have taken New Zealand into Iraq this time last year.

Dr Brash wants to take us back four years to the unfairness of the Employment Contracts Act; fourteen years to the failed economic policies of the 1990s; twenty years to before we had a nuclear free policy; and 164 years to when we did not have a Treaty.

I don't want that. You don't want that. The majority of New Zealanders don't want that.

So thank you, Dr Brash, for reminding us all why New Zealand needs a Labour-led government. And for giving us all a fresh source of motivation to deliver one in 2005.

ENDS

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